“A revolution of slaves against their masters”
Samar Yazbek, Syrian author, member of the Alawite community, arrested several times for her anti-Al-Assad stances:
Interview by By Christophe Ayad for Liberation, August 13th, 2011
Photo credit: Manaf Azzam
Samar Yazbek, 41, is one of the most important writers of her generation in Syria. Author of four novels, she is a columnist for the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat. Belonging to an Alawite family, the community of which is part Al-Assad clan, she has been very active since the beginning of the revolution in Syria. This has led to several arrests, leading to the unedited poignant testimony released last Wednesday. While in Paris, she testifies.
After so many years of dictatorship, did the Syrian revolution surprise you?
Yes and no. No because it has been more than four decades that the Syrian people is humiliated, living under the control of intelligence services. Lately, the regime was no longer content to control society, but dictated the entire life of citizens. We have no freedom of expression and opinion in Syria. Even traveling abroad requires a license. This country knows no politics. We live under a single party. It is a military regime, not a republic. All this is not new, but it allaccumulated. In the days of Hafez al-Assad, there was no satellite TV or Internet or Facebook or YouTube. Fear paralyzed people. The regime could suppress a city, region, without it being known. Especially since Hafez al-Assad enjoyed an international consensus that Americans and Israelis saw as necessary for regional balance.
What has changed with Bashar al-Assad?
With him, the regime is familial and clank. Rami Makhlouf, cousin of the president, controls 60% of the Syrian economy. There have been an economic opening, but it has benefited only to some families. This uprising is a ‘Spartacus’ revolution, a revolution of slaves against their masters. New media and communication tools have enabled the formation of an early public opinion throughout the Arab world, including Syria. A new generation of educated youth, who began to mobilize for human rights, quickly organizing sit-ins to support revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. These were immediately suppressed. On March 16, intellectuals and relatives of inmates held a rally outside the Ministry of the Interior before being brutally assaulted by police and ‘chabbiha’ [pro-régime armed civilian militias, note]. With that erupted Deraa events where young children were arrested for anti-regime graffiti. When the parents went to see the governor, Atef Najib, a cousin of the President, he replied: “Forget about your children, make new ones! And if you do not know how to do, bring us your women! “. This was the spark.
When did you realize it was a revolution?
It is a true revolution, which began in the countryside, a revolution of the marginalized and forgotten. The regime has repressed and killed more easily as it considered these people were the lumpen. Only after that intellectuals have followed. I went to most cities that held protests: Deraa, Banias, Latakia, Duma [a Damascus suburb, note]. From the very beginning, the slogans were the same across cities, even though there was still no coordination. People wanted an end to the constant intervention of the security services in their daily lives. It started with demands for social change and dignity. It is only one month later, after all the blood that appeared slogans calling for the downfall of the regime.
When the army came into action, Deraa in late April, did you think that was the end of the movement?
At first I was always afraid that the repression would bring an end to the protests. But this is where a Syrian miracle took place: while Deraa was occupied by the tanks and the city lived a carnage, a coordination has been set up so that everywhere else, solidarity with Deraa would be shown. The regime began killing everywhere. There has been many initiatives that are not known outside the country: doctors came to Deraa, from Damascus and other cities, in secret. Young coordinating committees were created from scratch, forming a true counter-society.
The two main cities, Damascus and Aleppo have not embraced the protests. Why?
First, this is where the social classes that have benefited most from the regime are concentrated. But if they see that their interests are threatened, the merchant bourgeoisie will also eventually take a stand against Al-Assad. The country is experiencing a very serious economic crisis. The second reason is that all public places are occupied by security forces to prevent any gathering. Power is obsessed with these two cities. There are small daily demonstrations in the capital, but they are nipped in the bud. Once, we wanted to organize a march of women in the district of Sahet Arnous in Damascus. We had passed the word to avoid being identified: no Facebook, no e-mail, no text messages. We were 80 or 90. Within five minutes we found ourselves surrounded by police and chabbiha, who hit us with batons.
The regime is trying to stir up sectarian antagonisms. Is it working?
We can not deny the sectarian fact, but for now, it has not degenerated into civil war, although the regime is pushing in this direction. There has been some revenge but, given the scale of government abuses, these are isolated incidents. I am from Jibla, a mixed Sunni-Alawite village, near Latakia [Western countries, note]. The day the security forces killed eleven Sunni, they went into the Alawite neighborhoods, telling residents to protect themselves because the Sunnis would get revenge.Weapons were sold by the Alawite chabbiha and the result is that Jibla is cut in half.
Who are the chabbiha?
They are young Alawite militias who were born in the 80’s in the family circle of Hafez al-Assad. They are absolutely faithful to the regime. Their members are paid for their dirty work, they work in coordination with the Mukhabarat [intelligence services, note], the police and the army. They are the ones who do the dirty work.
What is the Alawite community, to which you belong, like the Assad clan?
The majority are in solidarity with Al-Assad. They think they will pay should the regime fall, even though they have not benefited form it. There is a deep memory of past persecution and exploitation in which lives the Alawite community. But in the elite, youth participate in the coordinating committees of the revolution, especially in Latakia. As for Christians, they are pulled back: most of them are afraid of the Muslim majority and remain sensitive to the regime’s propaganda on the infiltration of Salafist groups [Sunni fundamentalists] in the demonstrations.
Yourself, you have been arrested …
Yes, first there have been campaigns against me on the Internet. I was arrested several times. Since I am an author known in Syria and that I belong to an Alawite family, they did not dare to keep me. But each time, I was taken blindfolded and interrogated, threatened, for several hours. As they could not do anything to me, they wanted me to see what happened to those arrested and tortured. They wanted me to take a stand against the revolution. As it did not work, they sought to discredit me. Anonymous leaflets were distributed in my village, calling me “traitor” and calling to kill me. The Alawite started calling me to threaten me. That’s what worries me more than the arrests. At the fifth convocation by the Mukhabarat, I went into hiding. During the so-called national dialogue in early July, the authority announced that everyone was free to travel, even the opponents, I took the opportunity to leave the country.
Will you return to Syria?
Of course, this is my country. People die there, I think about them every day. I am not in exile.
The regime has lifted the state of emergency and authorized the multiparty system. What do you think?
This is window dressing. Real reform would mean the end of the regime. If ever free elections were held in Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad would be over. If the power believed in reforms, he would have stopped killing its own people.
For the original French version, click here .